Enhancing the Capability and Efficiency of DoD Land Management by Using Commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Assess the Impacts of Fires and Coastal Storms

David Johnston | Duke University



Erosion of coastal landscapes can adversely impact amphibious training and coastal infrastructure. Prescribed burns are an important tool used for forest management throughout Department of Defense (DoD) installations. The commonality between coastal and fire management is the reliance on occupied aircraft for data collection, real-time monitoring, and ground support, which is expensive and a safety risk. This project aims to implement reliable unmanned aircraft systems in DoD fire and coastal zone management, thereby increasing the speed, ease, and safety of obtaining useful monitoring products for a fraction of the cost of manned operations. In addition, this project will publicize, communicate and deliver the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) demonstrations across DoD installations.

Back to Top

Technology Description

State-of-the-art aircraft (both multirotor and fixed wing) and sensors will be used for this project. Multispectral imaging will be conducted using a combination of visible RGB (Red, Green, Blue) and infrared (shortwave and longwave) sensors. Image processing and interpretation will allow mapping important features at the coast and in the forest, such as the shoreline position, beach topography, sea turtle nests, and vegetation recovery after fires. Real-time video with infrared sensors will allow fire managers to see through smoke and pinpoint fire progression, hotspots, and areas that require ignition. Existing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which encompass all necessary hardware and software, technologies and applications are not currently included in DoD land management. The costs associated with the versatility of these aircraft and sensors has dropped precipitously within the last few years, making them broadly accessible. We will demonstrate the wide array of monitoring and management possibilities that a reasonably-priced UAS kit can provide DoD land managers.

Back to Top


UAS will prove highly useful for fire monitoring in coastal plain areas with low gradient topography that offer no natural vantage points (e.g. hills or ridgelines) and may require more air support than similarly-sized fires in high-relief areas. Current practices use manned air support, which can be costly as well as hazardous. Firefighters deployed with a small UAS will be equipped to make better decisions from on-demand aerial views of the fire and terrain. Eventually, integration of UAS into fire management practices will provide rapid assessment and response once protocols have been established.

UAS will also be helpful in monitoring erosion and persistent loss of rare amphibious training zones, like Onslow Beach (one of the main amphibious assault training areas), which can be severely impacted by impulse stressors, such as large multinational training exercises or storms. Monitoring of the beach is usually conducted by sporadic aerial surveys, which are temporally coarse (typically 1-3 years) and do not allow managers to respond and plan around erosional events or identify thresholds of major change such as the minimum dune elevation needed to protect assets from inundation during spring tides. Better informed decision making will provide greater longevity of coastal resources as well as unimpeded training in the coastal zone.

UAS-based monitoring is a rapidly developing field, and currently, there are no clear pathways in place to incorporate UAS for use by DoD land managers. This work will develop the protocols to help balance the policies regulating UAS use and provides a clear transition plan to facilitate use across DoD land assets. This research has received interest from multiple installations around the country and by making the demonstrations easily accessible, highly visible and inclusive, the largest number of DoD installations will benefit from integrating UAS tools in their environmental management plans and routines.

Back to Top

Points of Contact

Principal Investigator

David Johnston

Duke University

Phone: 252-504-7593

Program Manager

Resource Conservation and Resiliency